Thursday, September 21, 2023

Youth mental health must be a priority in this lockdown

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The writer, former head of Downing Street’s political unit, is a senior fellow of Harvard

In the pre-Covid era, some parents wondered if their children had enough courage. We bought books on growth mindsets and worried about cocooning. What a luxury it seems now, with schools still closed. College classes are soaked in bedroom and mental health checkup on adolescents in particular puts a strain on the abilities of psychiatrists.

Lockouts are a psychological experience on millions of people. Humans are social animals, for whom isolation is a punishment. Deprived of the possibility of mingling, we are pushed into our own little worlds, amplifying anxieties. This is particularly disabling for young people whose adolescence is supposed to be a social rite of passage. Right now, meetings with friends, sporting events, vacation jobs and even driving tests are prohibited. There is no escape for parents.

During the first lockdown, studies suggested that some people enjoyed more exercise and time with their families. But there was also a marked increase in depression and anxiety. This time, the novelty has worn off. Children have lost a year of their childhood; young people who leave school are unemployed. Two thirds of parents say their children’s behavior has changed since the start of the pandemic, and half say their biggest worry is their children’s mental well-being.

It is incredible, really, that democratic societies have accepted such severe and prolonged restrictions on their freedom. This was only possible, I think, thanks to the anesthesia of the screen. As parents move from one Zoom meeting to another, kids seriously exploit online lessons, then collapse in front of a movie. The pandemic has brought us uncomfortably close to the world of Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451, where the living room wall is a giant pixel screen, no one can take their eyes off.

Social media companies are the beneficiaries. The more tired we get, the more we are drawn to social platforms and the less energy we have to reduce our children’s use. At Christmas, the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health warned parents to watch out for eating disorders, which have tripled or even quadrupled among those under 13 in parts of the country compared to a year ago. But it’s even harder to counter the damaging effects of celebrity body images, loneliness, or not having enough likes when there is nowhere to go.

The current line on key worker status indicates that families are at the breaking point. Since the government closed schools, principals have been inundated with requests for places for key child laborers, with some parents accused of fake credentials. Speaking to teachers, I have the feeling that many parents are more desperate than selfish. In the first two lockdowns in the UK, more than half of working mothers found it’s hard to stay positive and a third of working fathers. This third lock is brutal.

We will only know the extent of the damage once the pandemic has passed. For some, this crisis will have strengthened resilience. But many will bear scars. Even before Covid, child and youth mental health services were turning away almost a quarter children referred to them for treatment. Half of all mental health problems start at 14. After Covid, more therapists are urgently needed.

If whatever good is to come from this crisis, it is that any lingering stigma about mental health is gone. It has been over half a century since war correspondent Richard Dimbleby “got out” about her cancer and broke this taboo. Yet depression still makes people tremble. When I was a child, I saw many people pushing my clinically depressed mother to “pull herself together”. Nothing could have been less useful, more hurtful or less relevant.

In a new book, Mending the mindOliver Kamm argues that depression is still poorly understood by Western societies which are so wary of “therapeutic culture” that they have imposed a “culture of indifference”. Mr. Kamm’s own experience of depression leaves him warning us not to learn the wrong lessons from the pandemic. He urges you to give up a stiff upper lip and recognize depression as an illness instead.

In the past, I have questioned the wisdom of grouping certain disorders together. Statistics on millions of sick days lost due to depression, anxiety or stress – which are vastly different – dilute their strength. But enduring this horrific experience gives many people new insight into the fragility of their own mental states and their children.

The government talks more and more about the need for parity between mental and physical health. Yet, in trying to fight one disease – Covid-19 – it generates a host of more: undiagnosed heart problems, untreated cancers, mental illness. Mental health services actually worsened during the crisis. In September, nearly one in four students said there was now less mental health support in their schools, while a quarter of children who received mental health support before the crisis lost.

Our sense of helplessness in this crisis is compounded by ministers who keep changing the rules in panic. The education department’s astounding inability to decide on school exams is an unnecessary stress for children already under extraordinary pressure.

I remain hopeful that this generation will succeed. My kids didn’t cry as much as I did and taught themselves new skills. I have never worried less that they will become “snowflakes”. We will all be transformed by this crisis and hopefully emerge more aware of what it means to be human.


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